Democrats deflated by the anticlimactic end to Robert Mueller’s Russia probe desperately wanted to change the subject — and the Trump administration was only happy to oblige.
House and Senate Democrats on Tuesday seized on the Justice Department’s endorsement of a federal court ruling to eliminate Obamacare in its entirety, immediately renewing attacks on the GOP for trying to gut the law’s popular protections and rip health coverage from more than 20 million Americans.
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The administration’s surprise decision — a shift from its prior stance that only parts of the Affordable Care Act should be thrown out — offered a unifying moment for Democrats still grappling with the news that Mueller would not charge President Donald Trump with any crimes, and comes as the party readies a fresh legislative offensive on health care.
“It’s disgusting. It’s horrible,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, the No. 4 House Democrat. “It’s what they were trying to do during the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, it’s what Republicans were doing when they filed the lawsuit. The president’s been clear about his position the whole time.”
And even as Democrats decried the move, they also saw it as a political gold mine.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) told Democrats in a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday that the DOJ’s decision was “a gift” to Democrats, who have struggled for months to keep the focus on their legislative agenda and not all things Mueller.
Some House Democrats were careful not to publicly gloat exiting the meeting Tuesday morning.
“I hate to look at it that way because that makes it look like a game,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who leads House Democrats’ campaign arm. “We know what we’re fighting for.”
But other lawmakers were privately ecstatic about the Trump administration’s decision to essentially to trample all over its own good news cycle and turn the attention back to an issue that Democrats used to win back the House.
“It’s really outrageous. I don’t understand if Republicans weren’t present for the last election, but if there was an issue that was deeply critical, it was health care,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said after the meeting.
It’s “not only immoral, it’s a really bad political decision for them,” she added.
Ways and Means health subcommittee chair Lloyd Doggett called the DOJ’s late Monday filing a needed reminder to stay focused on concrete policy issues, while others held it up as evidence of the yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans on a topic that voters care deeply about.
“We’re going to introduce a bill to protect and strengthen the ACA. That’s the responsible thing to do,” said Rep. Donna Shalala. “They’re being irresponsible, and they’re putting 20 million people in this country at risk.”
Indeed, House Democrats had planned a pivot to health care even before the Trump administration late Monday announced its support for a federal judge’s December ruling that the entire ACA should be invalidated because Congress eliminated its individual mandate penalty in the GOP tax law.
Democrats are rolling out a wide-ranging Obamacare package aimed at shoring up the law’s benefits while reversing several of the Trump administration main health priorities — a bid to follow through on the campaign-trail vows that helped propel them into the House majority.
The package is largely a rehash of policies that Democrats pitched last year, like expanding the Obamacare subsidies meant to help Americans afford health coverage and restoring outreach funding that Trump slashed over the past two years. It would also rescind regulations expanding cheaper, skimpier health plans that the administration has touted for providing greater choice, but Democrats have derided as “junk” insurance.
Their plan gained new significance in the wake of the Trump administration’s legal action, providing vulnerable Democrats with concrete legislation to hype for their swing-district voters and a powerful tool to use against Republicans who refuse to endorse any Obamacare-related measures even as they insist they want to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.
For Republicans, meanwhile, the Justice Department’s move threatens to put them back on the defensive just days after what was arguably their biggest victory of the Trump era.
The White House and close Trump allies on the Hill have battered Democrats over Attorney General William Barr’s summary concluding that Mueller found no collusion between Trump and Russia. GOP lawmakers are calling for a series of counter-investigations and declaring that the special counsel’s support will help reinvigorate support for Trump ahead of his 2020 run.
But most Republicans have so far remained fairly quiet in the aftermath of the DOJ filing in a case that few view as politically advantageous. And those who did have an initial reaction expressed exasperation at the disconnect between the Trump administration and the Hill on health care.
“Do we have a plan? What’s our plan,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who opposed the party’s repeal efforts two years ago. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Republicans kept the Senate in part by vowing that they were fighting for pre-existing conditions, despite the Trump administration’s support for a lawsuit undercutting them. They argued that they would work swiftly to reinstate those protections if the lawsuit succeeded, despite the Senate GOP’s failure to pass a new health care law in 2017.
Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in an interview that the issue should get another hearing in the Supreme Court after the tax law hollowed out Obamacare’s individual mandate.
“Based upon our taking the individual mandate out, the rationale for the Supreme Court decision is no longer valid,” Grassley said. “Having a second trial, a separate determination on the constitutionality, is legitimate.”
But the issue is a new headache given the new Senate map: Democrats have gone from defending 10 states that Trump won in 2018 to launching campaigns against incumbents in places like Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina and Maine. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been particularly outspoken in opposition to the administration’s support of the lawsuit.
Senate Democrats discussed the change in political fortunes on Tuesday morning at a leadership meeting and emerged eager to flip the script on Republicans who were ebullient about Mueller’s findings just a day before. Now with a serious battle for Senate control developing in purple and blue states, Democrats say they have the political upper hand on an issue their House counterparts used to devastating effect in 2018.
“It turns the page back to our issue,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The Trump administration has “revived the most important issue in the 2018 election and they couldn’t have done it more convincingly than to say that Trump and his White House are out to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.”
Vulnerable Republicans across Capitol Hill had struggled to reconcile their support for pre-existing condition protections in the run-up to the midterms with the administration’s original stance that Obamacare’s core patient benefits should be eliminated.
This latest shift only appears to have further cornered the GOP.
“The administration is very happy with the Mueller report. So are our Republican friends. This move by the Trump administration to take away health care will prove far more detrimental to the administration and the Republican Party than any gains they might have made by the [findings] of Mr. Barr’s letter,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Even Doug Jones of Alabama, by far the most endangered Senate Democrat next year, was singing the same tune as party leaders.
“I’m outraged. It’s going to hurt my state really bad if that were to go forward,” Jones said in an interview. “They couldn’t do in this chamber what they wanted to do, which is completely dismantle and disintegrate it. So they’re trying to blow it up in any way possible.”
Heather Caygle and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.